Sometimes content is not the answer. A content marketing fail.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail (one of the main reasons men with hammers never get invited back to glass-blowing exhibitions).
And to a content marketer, every marketing challenge is an eBook-shaped hole.
Plagued by low awareness? You need some content for that.
Turning into the Page Three girl of Google? Crank out some content.
Considered a ‘Thought Follower’ in your industry? You need content for that, mate.
Arriving at the Social Media party empty-handed? Bottle up some content and ring that doorbell.
But as marketers discover the power of content for driving results in search, social, outbound, lead gen and thought leadership, there’s a risk that we’ll use it even when it’s not the best tactic.
We were guilty of this recently, working for a client I won’t name (because it might embarrass them and because they might sue us for malpractice). Here’s the story:
A cautionary tale
The client came to us with a problem: they had a fantastic thing to offer to their existing customer base (an awesome piece of free software that helped customers get way more value from their products).
We learned all about it and said, “You need content. Content will attract your customers to engage on this issue and then we can show how this great software can help them.”
So we did some content. Two eBooks. Really good eBooks all about the issues addressed by the client’s awesome software.
Customers downloaded the eBooks in their thousands, said they really liked them and shared them in social media and user group forums.
At the same time, we also ran some ads on a few of the client’s high-traffic pages and sent out some emails to their database. Seemed a shame not to.
Guess what: the ads and emails drove WAY more uptake of the awesome software than the eBooks did.
Content marketing had failed and old-school, interruption-based, broadcast-style marketing had succeeded.
Whoah. That’s not supposed to happen. Content is supposed to be the best way to do everything right?
At Velocity, we like to think of ourselves as empirical marketers. We love the art of marketing but we bow down to the science. So when these disturbing results came in, we did what most reputable scientists do when faced with results they don’t want. We changed the subject.
But the facts kind of gnawed away at us. And the client developed an annoying habit of mentioning it in every meeting (kidding: they were exceedingly gracious and just as puzzled as we were). So we decided that, while repression and denial were working pretty well for us, we should try considering the facts.
Why content marketing failed
Here were the facts:
- The client’s awesome software really was awesome – it really helped customers do their jobs better
- It was also free – to anyone with a customer account
- And easy to find and use – a click away
In short: the client had a great offer. On top of that, the target audience was known to us – they were existing customers. We had their email addresses. We knew what products they owned. We knew where they went for help.
We didn’t see it then, but it seems so clear now: content was one way of getting customers to try the awesome software (it did, after all, drive some uptake); but it wasn’t the shortest way.
This was one of those times in marketing when the simple, obvious, unsophisticated route really was the best. The client had a great offer for an almost captive audience. The right strategy was simply to tell it and get the hell out of the way.
Just telling their customers about the awesome offer was quicker, cheaper and more effective. (I know: ouch, right?)
So what did we do? We did what every agency does when confronted with its own failure. We post-rationalised as if our lives depended on it.
Strap on your tap-dancing shoes and remember: use your arms. Here we go:
The content did lots of other great things for the client beyond just driving uptake of the awesome software.
So what if software uptake was the stated goal? Our brilliant content also raised awareness of the issues addressed by the awesome software. And positioned the client as a company that cared about its customers. And gave them something to share in social media (something other than a link to the awesome software, which probably would have been, um, better).
“Our content was ‘top of the funnel’. Eventually, when they’re ready, people who downloaded it will use the awesome software.”
Maybe. Maybe not. We sure hope so. Time will tell.
“The content lives on long after the ads and emails have died.”
Now that one is true. Content is an evergreen asset. Ads and emails are like yodels without the echo. Our content was the tortoise, the crass ads (which we also produced) were the hare. (Any other metaphors we can mix in here?).
“The content will keep generating search traffic for years.”
Similar to the above but when you’re post-rationalising, you sometimes need to spread your case out a bit.
“Look over there! A flying eggplant!”
When all else fails, even the most zealous post-rationaliser just needs to get out of the room.
The moral of the story.
This humiliating but enlightening episode has taught us one thing: that no single tactic – not even the mighty content marketing – is right for every situation.
Maybe two things: just because you’re clutching the world’s coolest hammer, doesn’t mean every brief is a nail.
But wait! An ingenious alternative interpretation that lets us all retain our dignity and adhere to Content Marketing scripture:
How about this:
When you think about it, the client’s awesome software was itself content. It harnessed the client’s expertise to help people do their jobs better.
So our mistake was thinking the only way to promote content is more content, which, if it were true, would mean content marketing agencies like Velocity are on to the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme.
No, the ads and emails offering the free software were content marketing after all. And it worked.
See? There’s nothing it can’t do.